“The Sam Cooke Story” is a brilliant production about a singularly gifted artist

“The Sam Cooke Story” featured an incredible artist whose life was cut short under very suspicious circumstances. In a remarkable performance, Cecil E. Washington, Jr. was transcendent as Cooke, singing some of the most beautiful songs ever written and performed by a singular musician. Washington’s voice seemed to be touched by divinity with his dulcet tones and charismatic stage presence, he was perfectly cast as the prodigiously talented Cooke.

Photo by Don Daly

Washington was equally impressive as Mister in the season’s other strongest show, “The Color Purple.” He was so fluid in the two roles that I did not realize he was the same actor until he told me so in the reception line at the close of the show.

In song after song, Cooke’s range was absolutely extraordinary from the beloved classic “Don’t Know Much About History” to the beautiful love song “You Send Me” to the strongest performance of the night in “A Change is Gonna Come,” which posthumously became one of the most important protest songs of the civil rights movement.

Photo by Don Daly

Other noteworthy performances were turned in by Carmilla Harris, as Dot Holloway and Delores Mohawk, Cooke’s true love and first wife, respectively, and Joel Patrick King, as Charles Cook, Sam’s brother and closest ally. Having Harris play dual roles made keeping track of Cook’s love life difficult, however, the chemistry between Dot and Sam was palpable from their first introduction. It was tragic that they were finally able to be together before his life was cut short at age 33. The family dynamic, including Sam’s close relationship with his brother Charles also helped bring us into the story of Sam’s life and to care deeply about him.

Photo by Don Daly

This was a slightly different foray for Westcoast Black Theatre delving more deeply into the life of the featured artist. There was a slightly mixed result, but I am so glad WBTT is moving in this direction. I loved learning more about such an immensely and intensely talented singer, who is such an important figure in the music industry developing his own label and recording over 33 top 40 hits, one for every year he was alive.

However, the disturbing nature of his death, a murder that was ruled a justifiable homicide, was hinted at the beginning and the conclusion of the production. I felt this aspect of Cooke’s life was given short shrift so the very last number didn’t feel earned, because the final scene was left open-ended. I wanted to mourn with the rest of the cast but the emotional toll seemed to come about too quickly and with little explanation.

Yet nothing could mar the absolute delight of this production, which I recommend wholeheartedly. I have a newfound appreciation and admiration for this incredible icon, and for Washington who is a major star on the rise. Don’t miss the remainder of the run of “The Sam Cooke Story,” a production which is yet another treasure of the WBTT.

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